By Doug Talley
I’ve not tended to pay much attention to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day or President’s Day – until I started reading biographies of the early presidents (Washington and Jefferson) and Lincoln. They gave me a great deal of appreciation for the resolve leaders of our country have had and the demands they faced. These biographies have also given me a greater understanding of the horrible and inhumane ways African Americans have been treated in the United States.
Slavery predated the founding of the United States. It dates back to 1619 when 20 Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, as slaves. (Cindy and I visited Jamestown last September, and the tour we were on was led by a Park Ranger playing the part of a slave.) Slavery was a hotly contested topic as the new nation formed. Some wanted to abolish it from the very beginning, but influential persons did not have the perspective, courage, fortitude, and/or support to address it in a redemptive manner. As ridiculous as it sounds to our 2019 ears, during that day slaves were regarded as morally, intellectually, and spiritually inferior to whites. Basically, they were seen and treated as less than human. That’s appalling.
Though a key result of the Civil War was the emancipation of slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, attitudes towards African Americans did not necessarily change – neither in the North or the South. Variations of slavery continued to exist as African Americans were treated inhumanely and not just in the South. For over a century after the Civil War, African Americans were still struggling to overcome hatred, prejudice and civil injustice. The country that had emancipated them did not take the critical next steps needed to address the racial divide. Jim Crow laws were enacted that were supposedly intended to create separate but equal economic, educational, and social policies, but they were just legal ways to discriminate.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born into the world of Jim Crow, segregation, and a continued belief by many whites that blacks should be “kept in their place.” (Interesting how we use that expression as justification for doing horrible things to other people we deem as less human than ourselves.) He literally gave his life addressing the racial divide and fighting the system. He believed what the Declaration of Independence said, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights….” He preached the Gospel of reconciliation and unity. He modeled and communicated God’s love for all persons regardless of race. He took incredibly bold steps to raise the country’s awareness that the horror and inhumanity of slavery was still leaving its mark on individuals, relationships, people groups, the legal system, the church and institutions.
This past year as I watched the movie Selma, I was deeply moved by the injustice that I saw. I was also deeply impressed by the life, ministry, courage, and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. He risked so much to say enough is enough.
I was born a year after he became a public leader in the civil rights movement. I grew up in East Central Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia, during the height of his ministry. I remember seeing news reports about him and civil unrest, but I was pretty segregated in my white world and didn’t understand the significance of what was happening.
Watching Selma shook me. I was embarrassed to be white. I was embarrassed by the way many whites treated blacks. I was embarrassed and angry that this mistreatment has gone on for so long and that the system has found new ways to fuel racial inequality and injustice. The movie triggered flashbacks of some things from my growing up years that seemed normal at the time (separate restrooms and drinking fountains) but were so ungodly. I realize that we cannot fairly judge people in one period of history by our views and perspectives of today. However, there comes a time when we must call racism, hatred, ‘civilized’ forms of slavery what they are – an abomination to God. And we have to act against them.
This year the first biography I am going to read will be about Martin Luther King, Jr. I need to understand his life and his heart. I need to be influenced by his passion and his beliefs. I need to honor him while realizing his work is not finished.
Dr. King expressed the cry of my heart when he said,
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ … I have a dream that … children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character… Let freedom ring.”
Indeed, let freedom right for all persons regardless of the color of their skin. Thank you, Dr. King!